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21 February 2011

On Immigration: Let People Go Where They Want

Borders have guards and the guards have guns. This is an obvious fact of political life but one that is easily hidden from view – at least from the view of those of us who are citizens of affluent Western democracies. To Haitians in small, leaky boats confronted by armed Coast Guard cutters, to Salvadorans dying from heat and lack of air after being smuggled into the Arizona desert, to Guatemalans crawling through rat-infested sewer pipes from Mexico to California-to these people the borders, guards, and guns are all too apparent. What justifies the use of force against such people? Perhaps borders and guards can be justified as a way of keeping out criminals, subversives, or armed invaders. But most of those trying to get in are not like that. They are ordinary, peaceful people, seeking only the opportunity to build decent, secure lives for themselves and their families. On what moral grounds can these sorts of people be kept out? What gives anyone the right to point guns at them ?
Joseph H. Carens, Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders

The passionless oppression that Kafka described so hauntingly is nowhere more in evidence today than in immigration control. Ordinary people who have done no harm and who do not intend any are imprisoned, if not literally then in a bureaucratic labyrinth, for years on end – but often literally. It reduces people to problems, penalizes ambition, and causes irreparable damage to the lives of those who wish only for the chance to work and live. I don’t think there is any justification for this. An acceptance of immigration laws entails that one identifies with the state rather than with people. This is abject and inhumane.

Surely You Can’t Mean…Open Borders!?

People can accept the mistreatment of migrants because they have absorbed the ideology of the nation-state, especially the idea that the nation is the supreme and eternal unit of human community, outside which a person is barely a person at all. Immigration comes to be seen as a perennial problem against which a state must take action, and this is perpetuated by means of laws and by the opportunism of politicians and media who feed upon xenophobia. Immigration control and xenophobia combine together in a positive feedback loop.

More fundamentally, the suspicion of people from different places is politically enshrined by nation-states. To me, this is an indictment of their very existence, because such suspicion makes us forget our common humanity. When people align themselves with the abstract entity of a state more than with other human beings, then something in liberal democracy has broken. In the last hundred years – most especially in Nazi Germany – we have seen the catastrophic results of this.

I want to see a world in which migrants are treated as people like anyone else, and not as criminals, burdens or charity-cases.

Us and Them

Those who fear immigration paint a picture of a country with fixed resources and jobs, surrounded by foreigners grabbing for what is our birthright. But societies, cultures and economies develop and grow through the unpredictable and uncontrollable (except by totalitarian means) movement and activity of people. And it is not regulations and social engineering that ensure their success, but the autonomous social and economic life of people and communities. When we allow the dictates of big business or the state to interfere with this natural social change we are allowing for oppression. Economic success, cultural vibrancy, jobs and resources are created by people.

A liberal or left-wing acceptance of immigration laws is morally and politically disastrous. Morally, because it advocates the criminalization of ordinary people who wish to make better lives for themselves, and their detention, monitoring and otherwise inhumane treatment. And politically, from a socialist point of view, because it makes a target of ordinary people with whom we should be joining in solidarity, and any socialism worthy of the name must be internationalist. And politically again, this time from a liberal point of view, because it is a rejection of basic individual rights, an outrageous infringement of liberty and egalitarianism. A liberal nation-state is not a private club.

A Question of Sovereignty

Although I’m in favour of the eventual dismantling of nation-states, I don’t think open borders need wait for that far-flung united world. We have already seen the success of open borders, to some extent. Within the European Union, states retain sovereignty, but for many of them this sovereignty does not include the right to exclude migrants from other countries within the Union.

And it is worth remembering that European nation-states were formed, and their sovereignties established, over periods in which there were no immigration policies. For example, immigration control began in the UK with the Aliens Act of 1905, and it was possible to travel from Paris to Saint Petersburg without a passport until the outbreak of war in 1914. Nation-states themselves only began to form in the 18th century, and the enthusiasm that accompanied this process was not aligned with the tribal and feudal loyalties of old. Rather, national cohesion was artificially constructed for the purposes of uniting disparate communities and interests together in the drive for economic and social progress. In this effort, nations were progressive. But at the same time, the potential for unhinged chauvinism inherent in their structure became horribly apparent in the 20th century. And this is one reason why nationalism, the outward, conscious expression of the ideology of the nation-state, is one of the most dangerous products of modernity.

But the success of the national bourgeois revolutions in uniting people under different banners demonstrates the potential human beings have for transcending the old divisions. There is no reason why we should stop at the nation.

But even without this perspective, and accepting the boundaries we have, I don’t think sovereignty automatically grants my government the right to interfere with the movement of people, which I consider to be a more fundamental right, or to meddle with the organic processes of migration — any more than it grants them the right to shoot unwelcome entrants or prevent British citizens from leaving.

Migration: it’s What We Do

My use of the term “organic” to describe migration is important. I use it to suggest two things. First, that migration is a perennial feature of human history and prehistory, its effects everywhere, woven into virtually all societies. That is, it is natural, in a loose sense. Societies are the result of migration, and it has conspicuously powered the development of the modern world: who was it who built New York, Hong Kong, London and every other global city? Second, that migration is generally unpredictable and unplanned. It is not part of some grand project of social engineering, but is just the autonomous movement of people and communities.

Seen in this light, the prejudices and myths surrounding immigration are revealed as, if not simply racist then based upon a mechanistic, static picture of the world as a steady-state system of separate societies, which has been un-naturally perturbed from its equilibrium. It thus shares much with the recent alarmism over climate change and population increase, from which standpoint people are always the problem. This is exactly the attitude that progressives should be fighting against.

A Global Apartheid

At the root of the reasoned defence of immigration laws are the notions that the borders of one’s nation-state take priority over the rights of individuals, and that individuals who leave the jurisdiction of their home state forfeit their human rights by doing so. If these are seen as morally or otherwise insupportable, then it follows that the criminalization of migrants is unacceptable.

I am happy to see that much of what was formerly classed as the “Third World” is now catching up with the “West”. But we have a long way to go. The richest countries wield their power over migrants more than ever. Just as the protection of white privilege in South Africa was unsustainable, so will be the jealous guarding of the fruits of Western capitalism. European, American and Australian citizenship are the global equivalent of the possession of white skin in South Africa under apartheid.

UPDATE: Check out my article on Eric Hobsbawm’s analysis of nationalism

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